A' we luve 's been dung ajee

Stevenson Under the Palm Trees
5.99, Canongate

Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last few years of his life on a Samoan island. Like many literary exiles, during that period he was both prolific and wracked with doubts as to his abilities. But what if he had travelled all those thousands of miles, only to meet a sinister spiritual twin? When Mr Baker, a Scottish Puritan, appears on the beach one evening barking bible verse and eschewing the somewhat indolent lifestyle of the native islanders, Stevenson finds his presence curious if unremarkable to others. But then the violence begins. And the rape. And, ultimately, the killing. Stevenson is implicated---or was it Mr Baker? Does Baker even exist, or is Stevenson much sicker than he thinks? How to solve the mysteries, before the community turns against the author and embarks on a course of retribution that Stevenson might, or might not, deserve?

Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, in the style of the more successful fictionalizing homages to great authors, is a spicy, redolent novella, written with illuminating affection rather than oppressive devotion. It slots very neatly, in fact, into gaps in Stevenson's oeuvre: those he didn't have chance to fill, describing Samoa and the colourful background of his own situation; and those he could never fill, consisting of dramatizations of his final days and moments. However, Stevenson himself is very much a prop, far less psychologically developed than his weird doppelgänger or than any of Stevenson's own fictional characters, and he neither bungles nor strides his way through the criminal investigations that provide a structure for the book, but rather drifts along as the plot demands. This novella gives clues to his influences, his surroundings and his ultimate death: it would be a fitting tribute to his writing---a veritable pastiche---if it had also told us more about the man himself.